Michael Batty, a professor of planning at the University College London, Fellow of the British Academy, and founder and chairman of the board of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), has had a distinguished career as a professor of geography and planning and as an author and researcher. Most recently, Batty has been exploring the topic of Cities and Complexity. He has received numerous awards and honours (detailed here), and was recently presented the prestigious Lauréat Prix International de Géographie Vautrin Lud, the highest award that can be gained in the field of geography. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball spoke with Batty at the recent Geodesign Summit at Esri headquarters in Redlands, Calif. The conversation ranged from current planning practice, to the impacts of social media and the Internet on the composition of cities, as well as the role of cities for sustainable development.
S&S: There’s a legacy of urban planners having an interest in GIS, but little integration of GIS within the planning process. Is it now time for GIS and the concept of geodesign to become more of a focal point in the urban planning process?
Batty: It’s kind of a mixed picture I think when it comes to planning. The application of technology for planning has not been that innovative, and it has not been driven by the idea of producing better planning. If anything, a lot of these technologies have been aimed at making organizations more efficient and productive. The example at this event with CityEngine, where it used to take four days to build a city model, and now it takes just a few hours, is my experience too.
We had a 3D model of London that was built 10 years ago. We acquired lidar and built it in ArcScene and ArcGlobe, which was the available software at the time. It was amazing that we could do it at all, but it did take a matter of weeks. Now, for example, it’s easy enough to do in a matter of an afternoon. That’s the way the software has been packaged and wrapped and standardized and integrated, and so on.
S&S: There have been great advancements in terms of your connectivity models, where there are so many things that we can now follow within that model, with people profiled and aggregated, because we’re all connected through our smartphones.
Batty: Absolutely, and they’re leading to new kinds of data. Data streams and real-time sensing are becoming incredibly important. Some real-time sensing streams will produce more than 10,000 observations per second, and we need techniques and tools to be able to handle that. So far, things have kept pace, but you can see that there is an increasing volume of data that we need to manage.
S&S: In order to do that, it seems to take a mathematical approach, and some of the tools and techniques that you’ve helped pioneer, with agent-based modeling.
Batty: Most of the GIS tools, in one form or another, are based on some kind of formalized methods. So for example, even the 2D and 3D geometry of raster and vector maps, and the 3D world of CityEngine, are based on relatively straightforward mathematics. Map projections aren’t really straightforward mathematics, but they’re well understood. So, there’s a basic level of mathematical representation, but then on top of that there’s the mathematics of how the world works in terms of processes. For example, dealing with many of the tools that sit within ArcGIS, those tools are based on mathematical and statistical methods that have been developed often quite separately from mathematical computation. Those too are being encoded into software and to some extent are being taken for granted.
It was interesting, looking at all the tools that Esri has, many are based on well-known and innovative spatial analytical techniques. It almost appears as soon as some people develop new techniques they get coded into software. From that point of view, a lot of the tools, and then more generally the models, are based on underlying mathematics. Tools and models are often the same thing, but models tend to be sets of tools integrated into some kind of process and representation.
While we have raster and vector maps, and the geometry of 2 and 3D, you also have networks that have their own mathematics. The networks have been key to transportation and things of that sort for a long time within GIS. I think we have seen examples of how networks can be constructed across the landscape, in quite powerful techniques. All of these things are based on mathematics, which can be quite sophisticated or can be quite straightforward. It’s difficult to understand how intricate or straightforward any of these mathematics are within GIS.
A lot more has been picked up than I anticipated. I never imagined seeing this sort of stuff enshrined in software, I thought it was too specific and there wouldn’t be enough demand. What I think Esri have shown is that you don’t need that much demand to make these tools available. You need a robust set of tools that are in demand, but then to add additional tools to the suite, the marginal cost is quite low. Once you have the platform, and the demand, adding a bit more capability on is a marginal cost. It’s almost a critical mass thing, where now that GIS software has built up to a certain level it was almost inevitable that there would be enough talent to develop very niche applications very quickly.
S&S: Historically, we’ve always struggled with data to populate the systems, and there are so much data now.
Batty: The data now are unbelievable, with a lot of it from remote sensed sources, with local and remote sensing. Human and economic data are also increasingly being sensed, because it is being recorded digitally in real time. It may not be like a sensor that is spewing continual information, but it’s efficiently frequent to be able to produce estimates of population or actual values of population that is a much greater frequency than we ever had before. For a really long time, 10-year population results were the norm. Now, much of the world has moved to interpolation with mid-year estimates. Increasingly, we’re now getting sensor networks where traditional census data is being extracted in a highly frequent basis with things like online registers or mining financial transactions.
Adding value to data, where we now put multiple data sets together is an enormous thing too. The idea of integrating data in a way that one plus one no longer equals two, it equals three. When you put together one dataset, and another dataset, there are correlations and synergies between them that are discovered when you put them together. There are some incredible discoveries due to added value in data.
S&S: I really like your focus on the science of cities, that builds upon your work to understand the complexity of cities.
Batty: I think one of the things about the science of cities, is also the science of anything that is a human system. Because human beings are sort of in charge of their own destiny, and because we have powers of invention and innovation that to an extent are unpredictable, the notion of the stable system that we can observe is really not applicable to our world (the city or the social world). That means that our theory of how things work, our science if you like, is always contingent on the times in which we live.
This also means that if things are changing rather rapidly one has to take a very different approach. That is one of the reasons why predictability is increasingly problematic. There was an assumption 15 years ago that although we couldn’t predict the future, we could make relatively good short-term predictions. In certain instances we can, but in a lot of instances we can’t, because the volatility of the human system is such that we never know what is going to happen.
I feel that building this science of cities, or science of societies where the science of cities is a crucial part, will need to evolve a science that is flexible. That is different than the physical science that assumes there is some changing basis in theory to be discovered. It could be a matter of scale, but my guess is that it’s a matter of when we try and build a science of how we as individuals operate and react and so on, then there’s a high degree of unpredictability. We may all be quite predictable creatures, but someone looking in from the outside isn’t privy to the reasons why people do things.
It would appear, in a pattern sense, that a lot of human behavior is unpredictable, and I think we have to live with that. That’s why complexity theory is so popular, because it deals with the notion that there’s no ultimate prediction. It also deals with the notion that there are mergers in innovation, where new things that weren’t anticipated can emerge from many ideas.
S&S: It’s fascinating to think about the city as a system of systems that GIS mirrors with it’s own varied domains of application within a city. As a whole, could there be one citywide dashboard?
Batty: The biggest single problem I think is the notion of the significant ways of classifying and understanding cities — at what scale or time period. Immediately, when you pose that question, it means that our sciences are inevitably contingent. It may be that we can make some sense of classifying things, and building an appropriate taxonomy, but it is always subject to change and uncertainty.
I think that’s what makes us think that cities are complex systems. Over time there are emergent effects that are impossible to predict or anticipate, but when they emerge they are no longer thought of as mystical, but as obvious. The hindsight issue is of tremendous importance in terms of the science of cities.
S&S: With the hindsight issue, your presentation with its historical perspective, was really interesting. There is definitely an ongoing evolution of cities, and you were able to reach far back in the past to put a specific crossroads in London into historical perspective. Has history always been a part of your exploration of cities?
Batty: To some extent. I was talking about an example that had a great deal of history in it, but you could do the same thing here in Redlands. There’s still a bit of history here, when I’ve been here once or twice before I’ve passed the Dangermond nursery, which presumably dates back to Jack’s family.
I’ve always had a strong interest in history. It conditions us to understand that these problems are often very deep seated that we’ve got. To change things is hard, and one has to understand the history to know why people adopt the views they adopt.
S&S: And at the same time, in a lot of places in the world we’re talking about city building. Starting from scratch and erecting the smarter city, with the idea that we can do things in a different way that is going to be better.
Batty: I think all cities are using information technology, so all cities are becoming smart in some sense. The biggest cities in the world have the greatest momentum, and the greatest problems that smart city technologies can be applied to. Big cities have the most public transport, so you have a highly routinized system to move people around. It’s relatively easy to automate in some way, as compared to other systems. Underground systems are regular and intractable, where with all travel you get on the vehicle and it moves you to where you want to go. Not many cities under 2 million have subway systems, so consequently the biggest cities are getting smarter technologies faster than smaller cities.
The idea of new towns built from scratch, which are built on smarter technologies, is the other contrast. There are a number of proposals that are built on the idea of these smarter technologies, with Masdar in UAE, New Songdo in Korea, and Paredes in northern Portugal. These are towns that are being built with IT partners such as Cisco, Microsoft, Siemens, who are intent on wiring the town from scratch. Obviously, the transport systems can be wired from scratch, but more particularly, something that isn’t happening in any cities, is the idea of automating and informating energy.
Building standardization is so archaic, there’s so little standardization that it makes it very hard for energy suppliers to introduce standard systems and smart metering. The physical solutions in the homes themselves that would be required are more difficult to implement where you have a non-standard building. Wiring the home for efficiency is quite problematic at the present time. There’s a lot of talk about it, but not a lot of action so far.
Some of these new smart city new towns have basically got that, because they’re being built from scratch, and are being wired. These towns have not yet reached the point where we understand how they operate, but within the next five to ten years, we will be able to see.
S&S: With that level of control, the house becomes an agent perhaps?
Batty: You are an agent, the machines and appliances within it are agents. That’s an interesting notion, because to some extent to make these things work, they do have to be individual units, and therefore they have to be agents.
S&S: The whole notion of agents, is that evolving with connectivity? We have greater insight, but is their behavior then modified due to that connectivity?
Batty: I think that is happening quite a lot. New technologies are changing our behaviors as individuals and as firms, and governments, and so on. That’s really quite a big issue, this question of how cities and people are adapting to new information. There’s a lot happening at the moment that is very difficult to predict. We don’t know the impact the Internet is having on the shape of cities.
If you look at the industrial city, with a well-defined core and industrial quarters with richer people living on the edge living in bigger quarters than in the center, that really began to wane in the 20th century with the growth of the automobile. The big issue is what happens with the Internet, with information technology replacing energy technology.
People are making a conscious decision to work from home rather than from an office, which is the classic substitution effect. Many people say that the Internet is not leading to direct substitution, and that’s probably right, with just some substitution. That’s leading to the fact that many new technologies enable us to communicate, so we can go to work physically or communicate from home or anywhere we are. I sit here with my iPhone, and communicate locally or remotely, where everyone is in this global world. What impact that will have on cities is very odd to know. It must have an impact, it’s not going to have no impact, but what it will be physically is unknown.
One of the interesting things we’ve exploring lately is the impact of the Internet on the high street. In America, the automobile has had an enormous impact on downtowns. In Western Europe that was never the case, because automobile ownership is much lower and transportation movement is more difficult. Big freeways tend not to be built, because things have been developed so much.
Now, with the Internet, it looks as though the British high street is essentially collapsing, because vast amounts of trade are moving onto the Internet. People are decreasing their patronage of centers. These centers also contain a lot of government offices for services that are also being put on the Internet. With the impact of these technologies it’s extremely difficult to understand their impact on the shape of cities.
We’re using these tools to understand the city, as the city is being changed by the very tools that we’re using. Quite an uncertainty affect, and it’s a really interesting issue. To some extent that’s always been there. We develop new tools to understand things, and those tools have changed the way we look at the thing that we’re using the tool for. It’s now writ large, it’s much more significant than it has been.
S&S: Are you studying the role of nature around cities? Here in the United States, there’s much more talk of green infrastructure for approaches of handling storm water with restored wetlands, and other efforts to harness the ecosystem services of nature.
Batty: There’s much more of a concern with ecological balance. Again, it’s very difficult to square human science with natural science, and the idea of an integrated science that includes energy, ecology, and information in the city. Clearly, ecological systems that are very well defined, exist in cities and there is human ecology. Ecological science with respect with cities is very poorly developed. The human impact of an individual on ecological systems isn’t well understood at all. On a casual level it is understood, but in terms of mapping out the interactions between the physical and human systems it’s quite problematic I think.
We don’t have a good understanding of how nature and cities fit together, although there’s a lot of effort now being put into it, and with time it might yield up some secrets on how the two interrelate. There are people working on city metabolism and that sort of thing, but they’re very speculative compared to people working on things like transportation, residential housing markets and these things that are much more human sciences based.
S&S: With global change, there’s more talk of the resilience of the city and its ability to adapt.
Batty: It’s back to this issue of information and any kind of network, that includes a global network. It means that we have increased globalization everywhere, and that of course leads to the temporal frequency of interaction. With this sort of complexity it can lead to a variety of unintended consequences and cascades in networks that lead to the proliferation of crises.
I think there are plenty of examples of that, and we see it to a certain extent in weather forecasting. Certainly, in terms of the economic crises, I think the knock-on effects of the economic crises that started in housing markets and banking, and then extended toward sovereign governments with high debt levels in southern Mediterranean countries, which is really a second-order effect. These second- and third-order effects are perpetuated by the extended networking of globalization.
The science of cities is designed to try to look at those sorts of issues, which occur in other human systems, such as economic systems. Housing crises in cities can be thought about about in those terms. Even congestion in cities can be thought about in terms of increased connectivity.
S&S: Renowned environmentalist David Attenborough was quoted this week as saying, “man is a plague on the planet,” and certainly our exponential growth puts a strain on the planet. Are cities the best place for us to deal with efficiency issues?
Batty: It’s hard to tell, because the issue is, what is the future when it comes to cities? One speculation, that is quite informed, is that we’ll all be living in cities by the end of the century. But this begs the question, what do we mean by city? What we really mean is that everyone will live in an urban context by the end of the century. There will be cities of different types and sizes I suspect, as there always have been, but everybody will be urbanized. Probably that urbanization is the same as globalization, where everybody will be globalized because of networks. In that context, there probably is no escape from that, but it changes the balance of things in terms of the optimal distribution of natural and human resources.
I think we simply have to accept that the way resources will be allocated will be within this broad context of a global urbanized world. If you ask the question, are cities the best place do this, to some extent they’re the only place. That doesn’t mean that they’re the best place, so is the existing structure of cities the best way of doing it?
As of fairly recently it’s become more apparent that a good degree of inequality has been introduced into the system. I read recently that 25% of the wealth in the United States is owned by 1% of the population. It’s true everywhere, and that increase is reflected in the way our cities are structured to an extent. Were we to change that balance, and it would need to be done politically and by a change in cultural attitude, then I think our cities would be of a different shape.
One might see less emphasis on highly-centralized cores, and you would see a more muted spreading of things. There would be less obvious spatial inequality. But it’s very hard to speculate, and beyond doing things about them through cities. You can do things about them through cities, but it tends to be the tip of the iceberg. If one wants to reduce inequality, then it has to be done through traditional means like taxes, benefits, and a whole range of governmental measures that would have an impact on cities.
S&S: At CASA you’re involved in this science of cities. Are there any current projects that really excite you?
Batty: One of the theories that has been advanced recently is that big cities tend to lead to more than percentage increases in wealth. By and large, people in big cities tend to be more wealthy per capita than in small cities, all other things being equal. It would appear that this theory is obvious, with plausibility that big cities are places to attract people and there are many more potential interactions. There is a sense that bigger places are more vibrant and diverse, which in turn lends itself to more wealth and competition.
I think that thesis needs to be qualified on the basis of globalization. We’ve discovered in the UK that this is not quite the case. It would appear that movement of public subsidies between government and cities based on policy, and patterns of immigration, have an impact. In a global world, where everything is reasonably spread out, big cities may not retain this comparative advantage.
The idea of the city as a physical container is something that we need to be very careful about in the modern world. Where does the city begin and end, in particular where do the employees of the city begin and end. For instance, somebody employed in financial services in Los Angeles may conduct most of their business elsewhere.
What we’re doing in CASA is to look at the extent to which cities are bounded in the UK. How you define the extent of a city is an old problem that is very different in a global world. That is something that excites us quite a bit.
Other things that interest us, and that are quite pragmatic, are the unintended consequence of rapid changes in the infrastructure or rapid changes in movement patterns. For example, we have a big project on the public transport system in London where we have swipe card data with billions of records. 3.5 million people tap in and tap out each day, with a majority of people traveling on public transport. About 85% of those travelers are using stored value cards, and we have six months of those records where we can trace people’s behavior over time. We can identify things like school holiday and special events, and also disruptions in the network.
This has the potential to yield very useful solutions for individuals, which we can help predict based on the impact of things in the past. There’s the potential to increase efficiency, and to put in redundancy so that we can circumvent these disruptions in the future.